The latest online scam targeting seniors is almost too ingenious not to work. That’s what makes it so devious — and its victims so vulnerable.
Delray Beach, Fla., resident Diane Belz, 68, had no reason to be suspicious on March 1 when she opened an email claiming to be from Best Buy’s Geek Squad. She had opted for a Geek Squad technical support plan when she bought her MacBook in 2017. Like many other older adults venturing into the online universe, she didn’t know how to fix computer problems and wanted to be able to get help when necessary.
The email stated that her support plan had been extended for three years and her credit card charged $392.95. If she wanted to reverse the charge, she’d need to call the customer support number in the email within 24 hours.
Dialing that number was a decision Belz, who ultimately lost $1,800, and a unknowable number of other victims soon came to regret.
“Very few scams like this get reported,” said Ora Tanner, a researcher on the Aspen Tech Policy Hub’s recent project, Protecting Older Users Online. “And that’s because the senior is ashamed. They think, ‘How could I have allowed this to happen to me?’ They tend to hide it. That allows it to perpetuate.”
Another South Florida victim, from Boynton Beach, lost $52,724 to a Geek Squad scam. The 77-year-old asked not to be named for this story, saying she hasn’t told her children what happened to her. “They would have put me in an institution if they found out,” she said.
Known across the internet as the Geek Squad scam, it also comes disguised as other technical support plans, including Norton Anti Virus and other trusted brands. Scammers send out emails “phishing” for likely subscribers.
The Florida Attorney General’s Office received 10 complaints about Geek Squad phishing scams over 12 months ending March 2020. That’s up from three the previous year. Victim testimonials in Best Buy’s own technical support forums date back to 2019.
Business imposter fraud topped the Federal Trade Commission Consumer Sentinel Network’s tally of types of fraud against consumers ages 60 to 69 and 70 to 79 for the first time in the fourth quarter of 2020, knocking government imposters from the top spot. Reports of business imposter fraud by consumers in those age groups increased from 14,914 in 2016 to 44,114 in 2020. Consumers in those age groups reported losing $46.36 million to business imposter fraud last year, with the average victim losing $898.
Asked about the increase in reports of Geek Squad scams, a Best Buy spokeswoman provided this statement: “What happened to these customers is absolutely terrible and we have a team of security experts constantly working to do what we can to keep this from happening. Customers looking to use Geek Squad’s services can contact us directly at 1-888-BESTBUY.”